Last updated May 21, 2023.
In Part 5 of my series about the packaging industry, I explain corporate responsibility. You can read my first article on packaging and follow the series from there.
There are many ways that companies can take responsibility for the waste they create. But it often becomes the consumers’ problem. What kind of impact could we make if we change that?
Calvin Klein: Not an Example of Company Responsibility in Packaging
A couple of years ago, we ordered some Calvin Klein Men’s underwear, which arrived in an unnumbered plastic box. Plastic without a number cannot be recycled, anywhere. So I wrote to the company to see if they’d take the packaging back to reuse. They responded, “I regret to inform you that our warehouse will not reuse the packages.” They did not provide a reason, nor did they express interest in more sustainable packaging. I asked if they would stop using plastic packaging, or if they would at least switch to numbered plastic so that I could recycle it. They responded that they’d pass my comments on to their Product Development Team.
This left me with no option but to throw the packaging in the trash or find a way to reuse it. I ended up using it a couple of times as a gift box, and now it is in my collection of “plastic that I must pay TerraCycle to recycle.” Hence, the onus is on me, the consumer. We stopped buying from Calvin Klein.
This has got to stop.
“Currently, most product designers are under no obligation to consider how their products will be disposed of at the end of their useful life. This leads to the creation of unrecyclable products.”-The State of Recycling National Survey, U.S. PIRG Education Fund1
There is a way to make companies responsible for their own packaging
It’s called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). It is a policy concept that makes it the manufacturer’s responsibility for reducing packaging waste and improving packaging. Companies would have to have to rethink packaging, recyclability, and end-of-life impacts. There are four ways that EPR can work:
- EPR extends the manufacturer’s responsibility from the design and marketing to the post-consumer stage (meaning when the consumer is finished with a product).
- Producers either physically take items back through take-back programs, or they pay a third party for those services.
- Individual governments set standards for the responsible party, defines what materials should be collected and avoided, and require data collection. This model sometimes involves taxation or fees.
- EPR can go beyond packaging and address the post-consumer stage of items beyond packaging, such as electronics, batteries, cars, tires, etc.
It can be a combination of those as well. Here’s a video that explains EPR from Washington State, as the idea can apply anywhere:
“You already probably use EPR in some part of your life: aluminum can redemption, or maybe battery, paint, and e-waste collection programs. EPR is essentially a program for end-of-life product take-back. It is a recognition on the part of the government that this material is potentially problematic, toxic, or dangerous if not disposed of properly, which means that the company producing it needs to participate (read: pay for) at the end of that product’s life.” -Eve O. Schaub, author of Year Of No Garbage2
The Costs of EPR
Extended Producer Responsibility would cost the manufacturers and companies a nominal amount of money, and they would likely shift that cost to the consumer. “But perhaps this cost is better incurred at checkout than in…greenhouse gas emissions, marine debris, resource scarcity, toxicity, and food and drinking-water pollution,” wrote Scott Cassel, founder and CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute, in The Future of Packaging.
In our current system, the true cost falls on taxpayers because we are paying for our municipalities to haul our waste, whether it goes to a landfill or a recycling center. And then we pay again when those systems fail, and the cost becomes an environmental issue.
There currently are no laws and no economic incentives in the United States to make companies responsible for the waste they sell or for the waste they create. However, when the same US companies conduct business internationally, they follow EPR regulations in countries with those laws, showing that EPR can be successful.
“Unlike in many other developed countries, in the United States manufacturers and brands are not responsible for their packaging once the consumer buys the product.” – Scott Cassel, founder & CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute
Beth Porter noted in Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine that one challenge with EPR is that if companies take control of the waste stream, it could take decision-making power about waste management away from communities and result in the incineration of many materials. “Good EPR would include strong recycling targets and a stated zero-incineration policy. It would result in shifting some responsibility of disposal back onto producers, urging them to rethink designs of their products to be better suited for recycling streams.”
EPR around the World
EPR prevails in many other countries. The United States, meanwhile, “is currently one of only three nations of the 35-member Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that does not have an EPR system specifically for packaging in place or under development,” according to Cassel.
In 1991, Germany passed the “Ordinance on the Avoidance of Packaging Waste,” which was intended to shift the burden of packaging disposal from the public to the industries producing the packaging. This led to the creation of the Green Dot symbol, which indicates that a fee has been paid by the manufacturer to pay for the package’s end-of-life disposal. However, this symbol does not necessarily mean that a product or package is recyclable, a common misconception. For more information, watch this video:
The European Union passed the “Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive” in 1994 and thirty countries have implemented it. This aims at preventing the production of packaging waste through elimination, reuse, recycling, and/or recovery of packaging. “In Europe, global companies have accepted EPR as an appropriate cost of doing business and of being responsible corporate citizens,” wrote Matt Prindiville, Executive Director of UPSTREAM.3 Beth Porter noted that “Belgium boasts more than five thousand companies that follow [EPR]…the result of this is an impressive 95 percent recovery rate for packaging materials in the country.” Other countries that have adopted EPR legislation include Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, and Romania.
“Overall…EPR legislation has had the intended effect of moving up the waste stream into product and packaging design, logistics, and shipping departments of major manufacturers.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic
There are some who oppose EPR legislation, arguing that it amounts to an additional fee or tax. Trade associations like the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (AMERIPEN) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association oppose it. They argue that packaging disposal, recycling, and pollution cleanup costs should be the responsibility of the government. “In the U.S., these companies have determined it’s better to fight to keep EPR at bay than to partner with local and state governments to develop 21st-century systems for designing and managing packaging materials,” Prindiville wrote. Companies and manufacturers need to take responsibility.
EPR legislation must be passed to make companies responsible for their packaging. Without laws, it is doubtful that companies will do the right thing on their own. Remember, many companies are already practicing EPR in other countries because it is mandated. But not in the US, because they aren’t required to by law. You can write your legislators and request that they propose and/or support EPR legislation. The Story of Plastic film offers a great explanation of this.4
While EPR is one strong solution, it is not the sole answer to our packaging waste problems. We should combine EPR with many other ideas as the current waste stream is too enormous. We need to create vastly less waste on a global scale. Buy less and be mindful of the things you do purchase.
In my next article, I’ll cover take-back programs, a form of EPR. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!
“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky
Article, “Sustainability and the Economy,” Packaging World, March 13th, 2020.
Post, “The Producer Pays,” Knowledge @ Wharton, University of Pennsylvania Wharton, April 4, 2017.
Article, “5 Reasons EPR Is the Answer for Plastics Recycling,” by Matt Prindiville, Sustainablebrands.com, accessed June 20, 2021.